ear Black Detroiters: The opioid epidemic is our problem. I repeat: Do not file this issue under #whitepeopleproblems.
Let me back up and acknowledge what many of us in Detroit are feeling. No one came to our rescue when crack was ravaging the black community in the 1980s. The answer to the rampant scourge didn’t look anything like compassion for addicts or political efforts to get more treatment options. Instead, the crack epidemic was used as an excuse to crackdown. Addiction was criminalized and black families that were already torn apart by drugs were permanently destroyed by mass incarceration.
It’s a different story in the face of the mostly white opioid epidemic. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, about 33,000 Americans overdosed on opioids in 2015, 82 percent of whom were white. In 2015, Michigan saw the number break a record for the third consecutive year: 1,981 drug overdoses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes – 45 percent of which were from opioids. The national outcry has been unified, if not ironic. Everyone from Republican congressmen who supported the “repeal and replace” of the Affordable Care Act (which helps pay for treatment) to the medical establishment (which is in large part to blame for the problem) have been pushing for a national policy to stop the tidal wave of despair that has swamped many rural communities.
There’s no question that when white folks are affected, problems get attention. The black community has a reason to be resentful.
But it’s precisely because of rampant racism in the medical, law enforcement and political arenas that we need to stay on top of the opioid epidemic, not dismiss it. If you think for one minute that it’s not going to flood into the black community with a vengeance, you must be high.
While there has been a lot of focus on the abuse of prescription opioids like oxycodone and morphine, let’s remember that heroin is an opioid – one that has dogged the black community for decades. Now adding to the problem is the fact that when addicts can’t get prescription opioids, they turn to street drugs, including heroin. The Society of Addiction Medicine reported last year that four out of five new heroin users started out misusing prescription painkillers, and that 94 percent of addicts responding a 2014 survey said they chose to use heroin because prescription opioids were “far more expensive and harder to obtain.”
The abuse of lethal opioid synthetics like fentanyl and carfentanil is also on the rise. According to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin. Carfentanil is an elephant tranquilizer that is 10,000 times more potent than morphine. Both are being mixed with heroin on the street, and both are so toxic even police officers can be sent to the emergency room from breathing the dust or coming into contact with it during a drug raid.
We’ve seen this movie before. The increased demand for a street drug creates a deadly market, one that is usually centered in urban areas. The spin-off crime, violence and addiction wallops the black community. In no time, African-Americans will be re-experiencing a crack-like tidal wave of opioids.
The truth is that there has already been a noticeable uptick in opioid deaths in the black community. The alarm sounded in Cleveland earlier this year where the introduction of fentanyl into the cocaine supply has been responsible for the doubling of African-American deaths related to opioids since last year. In Detroit, emergency rooms are seeing more people arriving with synthetic opioids in their systems.
“When they present with an overdose from carfentanil, it is much more difficult to treat them with a reversal agent,” says Dr. Trifun Dimitrijevski, a staff physician of emergency medicine at Detroit Receiving Hospital. “We’re seeing that carfentanil has made its way into heroin, cocaine and other street drugs.”
Dimitrijevski, who has practiced in Detroit for 15 years, is also an assistant professor in the department of emergency medicine at the Wayne State University School of Medicine. He agrees that everyone should be concerned about the tidal wave of addiction and its deadly consequences.
“With no uniform requirement to report opiate overdoses and deaths, we don’t even know the extent of the problem yet,” he says. “This is going to take a major education and prevention effort for all of us.”
He’s right. When it comes to opioids, there is no horse of a different color.